Wisconsin Historical Society

Guide or Instruction

How to Create and Maintain a Great Nonprofit Board

How to Create a Great Nonprofit Board | Historic Preservation | Wisconsin Historical Society

A great nonprofit board can make the difference between a highly successful organization with an engaged and growing membership, and an organization that few people even know about. You can set your nonprofit organization on a course to success if you:

  • Think about how to make your board great
  • Create structures that support good board habits

A Board as a Social System

In an ideal universe, your nonprofit board will be a high-functioning work group whose members trust and respect one another. Group members will interact directly and productively with your organization's management and staff to lead the organization.

In reality, every board is a social system that changes based on the personalities and skills of the group members. A board that meets all of its legal responsibilities can still be completely dysfunctional if its members have poor chemistry.

Boards that lack cohesion work against the health of an organization, wasting time and talent. These boards gain a bad reputation and make future recruitment more difficult. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, the Associate Dean for Executive Programs at the Yale School of Management, notes that boards often rely on rules, regulations, procedures, and structures to remedy all problems. This approach, he argues, can only get a board so far. It can also create an illusion of effectiveness in an otherwise dysfunctional situation.

What Makes a Great Board Great

In his article "What Makes Great Boards Great" (Harvard Business Review, September 2002), Sonnenfeld evaluated a list of corporate boards. He concluded that "What distinguishes exemplary boards is that they are robust, effective social systems." He debunked some common wisdom by noting that the best board members:

  • Don't necessarily make all of their meetings
  • Aren't always the best financial contributors
  • Aren't necessarily young go-getters

Sonnenfeld added that board members with great credentials won't necessarily exercise those credentials flawlessly in their board capacity.

Board Development Requires an Investment

Creating a great nonprofit board — and maintaining high-quality board interactions and effectiveness — both require an investment of time and often money. Ongoing board development should be a top priority in every nonprofit organization. Board development could include leadership training, skills development, and self-assessment.

The work of a nonprofit organization's board requires a diverse set of skills. Some of these skills can only be acquired through experience serving on a board. But sometimes, even the most skilled and experienced board members are challenged when new board members join the group and change the group dynamic. Therefore, great boards require members who are always willing to hone their existing skill sets.

Strategies to Foster Board Success

The best boards are characterized by accountability, engagement, and respect. They promote quality communication and self-awareness among members. Here are some strategies to foster an environment that will lead to success with your board:

  • Create a climate of respect, trust, and openness. Foster a supportive environment where there are no stupid questions. Allow participants to share ideas and concerns openly without being cut off, talked over, or judged negatively.
  • Encourage productive disagreements. Fear of acrimony can lead to terrible decision-making or inertia, so work through problems and issues before making decisions. Explore each possible scenario using the best available information. Make use of devil's advocates in problem-solving exercises.
  • Share and alternate roles. Keep your board agile. Have your most agreeable board members play a devil's advocate. Challenge naturally aggressive members to support or mediate discussions.
  • Be accountable and self-aware. Acknowledge the role you are playing at any given meeting. Are you contributing or moving the conversation off course? Are you holding side conversations with other board members? Are you talking over other people or interrupting? Accept responsibility for bad behavior, amend, and apologize.
  • Regularly evaluate board performance. Board meeting evaluations can be as simple as periodic end-of-meeting surveys. Take time to discuss these evaluations if problem behavior becomes a trend.
  • Monitor your organization's health. Always know how your organization is doing, especially financially. Don't rely on your executive director for all your organization's financials. Use outside oversight in the form of an auditor or accountant. These professionals should work with your board treasurer and/or your Audit and Finance Committee. Take the same care with your organization's programs. Are they keeping up with the times? Is your membership up or down?
  • Take responsibility for recruiting new board members, regardless of your official role. Be on the lookout for great leaders who communicate well, know donors, and are familiar with nonprofit management, business, fundraising, and budgets. Do you have enough cheerleaders? Are there enough critics?

A Board's Most Difficult Job

One of the most difficult jobs of a nonprofit board is evaluating the executive director, because board members must rely on the executive director for most of their insights. Board members can undermine an executive director's authority if they reach out to staff subordinates.

However, in cases of gross mismanagement, allegations of sexual harassment, substance abuse problems, or absenteeism, unbiased external sources are necessary. An independent evaluator may gather information objectively from staff and others to provide the board with facts that can help them make sound decisions.

Learn More

Find more how-to articles about historic preservation advocacy.

You can learn more about nonprofit operations from the Nonprofit Management Education Center offered by the Center for Community and Economic Development, which is part of the University of Wisconsin Division of Cooperative Extension. This resource includes a library of articles and an Organizational Assessment Tool.